Story by: Karen Florin
New London — The Center for Safe Futures, a family justice center with comprehensive services under one roof for domestic violence victims, is moving closer to reality.
The center has been a longtime vision of Katherine Verano, executive director of Safe Futures, a New London-based agency that provides services to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault in 21 southeastern Connecticut towns and cities. Verano left a career in banking 26 years ago to work with victims of domestic violence after a co-worker was fatally stabbed by her husband.
The agency held a two-day summit in March to start planning for the family justice center and has continued to work on the project throughout the coronavirus pandemic, completing a strategic plan, putting together a team of staff and volunteers and reaching out to service providers who may want to have offices in the center.
Now they’re actively seeking a location, preferably a commercial building in New London, where clients who often feel traumatized, confused and alone can go for help with multiple issues, including legal problems, counseling, housing, employment and education.
“We have quite a few partners we want to have room for plus all our staff,” Verano said. “We need quite a large location, with handicapped parking, a few different entrances, more than one floor and elevators.”
Verano wanted to share the latest developments, since October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Her hope is to announce a location, or even have a groundbreaking ceremony, in 2021, the 45th anniversary of the agency’s beginning as the Women’s Center of Southeastern Connecticut.
Verano said Safe Futures will conduct a capital campaign to raise funds for the center and may seek bonding or federal funds. She said the agency is in a good financial position to undertake the project and owns several properties, at least one of which can be sold. In 2019, the owner of the former site of the Waltham Chemical Company donated a building at 368 Broad St. to Safe Futures.
During phone interviews Thursday, each member of the newly assembled family justice center team seemed more excited than the last about being part of the project.
Kenneth W. Edwards Jr. will be volunteering as director, or coordinator, of the project. A retired New London police captain and inspector for the Division of Criminal Justice, Edwards now works as security manager at Thayer Mahan. He has worked with Verano since obtaining a grant in the 1990s to form a Domestic Violence Response Team within the city police department. He was the first male member of Safe Futures’ board of directors.
“Kathy’s done amazing things there as far as getting the organization in very good financial condition, and that puts it in a position to make it happen,” Edwards said. “If we can pull this off, it’s the most significant thing to happen in southeastern Connecticut since the Women’s Center was founded.”
Marie Kenny, a past president of Safe Futures’ board of directors, has been hired as the coordinator of the family justice center, and is working part-time under a grant from the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut.
A former Massachusetts state trooper who specialized in investigating domestic violence and sexual assault cases for the district attorney’s office, Kenny also worked with the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which is the membership organization for the state’s 18 domestic violence service agencies, including Safe Futures.
“What blew me away was how incredibly insurmountable some of the barriers there were for victims trying to break free,” she said. “Working directly with victims is emotional, but the hard part are the systems that just can’t get out of the way. That’s part of what the center is going to do, break down those barriers and break down those walls.”
Kevin Barney, who worked on the domestic violence response team as a New London police officer and has been honored over the years for his continuing support of Safe Futures, has been hired as the agency’s full-time regional law enforcement advocate coordinator.
Barney retired last week from the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Police Department, capping off a 40-year career in law enforcement that started with the Capitol Police force in Washington, D.C., and at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts.
Now he’s going to put his experience, and his connections with local police and court officials, to work for Safe Futures clients.
“It’s something different, but something I’ve been passionate about and working on” since serving on the domestic violence response team, Barney said. “I was hesitant to leave Mashantucket, but it’s a good time to help Kathy build this dream she’s had for such a long time.”
George Potts, interim chief of the Mashantucket police, doesn’t begrudge Barney for leaving his department to work for Safe Futures, because he’s part of the Safe Futures team, too. Potts is the agency’s newest board member and co-chair of the law enforcement coordination effort. Potts, too, is a New London police retiree who worked on the domestic violence response team in the 1990s. He has continued to work with Safe Futures over the years, most recently by organizing teams at Mashantucket to help raise money through events such as walkathons.
“I’m thrilled I’m part of this board and going to be involved in the justice center,” he said. “When you sit back and think how a victim who sometimes might not have transportation has to go from one building to another, sometimes in different towns, for services, why revictimize the victims?”
Attorney Greg Massad, who is Safe Futures’ treasurer, is chairing the committee that is searching for a location. He said the agency would be working with a broker to find the perfect setting, hopefully within city limits.
“Hopefully we can find the right site based on the contacts I have and knowledge of the city,” Massad said. “I don’t really want to put a square peg into a round hole. I’d like everything to work smoothly. If we get a big building that’s empty and not divided, that’s perfect.”
Jacqueline Bessette, a graduate student working on her master’s degree in social work at the University of Connecticut, is working with Kenny while doing a yearlong internship with Safe Futures. While pursuing an undergraduate degree in women and gender studies at Eastern Connecticut State University and organizing Take Back The Night events, she developed a passion for helping victims and after graduation worked as a court-based victim advocate for United Services.
“I’m beyond excited,” Bessette said. “I think this will be great for the community and the demographic we work with. It will be a huge help to the victims and survivors of domestic violence. It will be nice to have all these resources in one location to make things so much easier for them when they’re going through so much.”